If he was there at all, which no one’s confirming yet … and yet no one’s quite denying, either. Reports out of Israel overnight put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Saudi city of Neom along with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, reportedly meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. If true, it would have been the first such appearance of an Israeli head of government in Saudi Arabia since, well … Moses, perhaps.
If it’s true, it suggests that normalization might be around the corner. Al Jazeera picked up on the reports this morning, before the Saudis began issuing limited denials. The Saudis have clearly been signaling a desire to normalize relations with Israel, but they have waited to allow the Palestinians time to start rethinking their decades-long intransigence. Perhaps they’re tired of waiting:
The Saudis finally denied that a meeting had taken place, but notably did not deny that Netanyahu had been in the country. The New York Times reports that the Saudis say that the meeting was only between Pompeo and Mohammed:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel flew to Saudi Arabia for a covert meeting Sunday night with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Israeli news media reported on Monday. But a top Saudi official said no such meeting had taken place.
Such a visit would be the first known meeting between high-level Israeli and Saudi leaders and could signal an acceleration of gradually warming relations between the two powers.
However, the Saudi foreign minister denied on Monday that any meeting with Mr. Netanyahu had taken place, insisting that Prince Mohammed had met only with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was completing a seven-nation tour.
“There was no meeting,” the minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, wrote in a text message, when asked about Mr. Netanyahu.
At least one Israeli official confirmed that it had taken place, however:
Hebrew-language reports, citing unnamed Israeli officials, said Netanyahu was accompanied by Yossi Cohen, the head of the country’s Mossad spy agency. Saudi state media did not refer to a trip and the Israeli prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
However, if there was any agreement to keeping the meeting secret, possibly to save Saudi Arabia’s leadership from facing anger from its pro-Palestinian population, it was soon broken in Israel.
On Monday afternoon the education minister, Yoav Galant, a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet and his Likud party, confirmed the face-to-face had taken place.
“The very fact the meeting happened and was outed publicly, even if half-officially right now, is a matter of great importance,” Galant told Israel’s Army Radio.
Netanyahu’s office seemingly confirmed it too, albeit in a swipe at a political rival:
גנץ עושה פוליטיקה בזמן שראש הממשלה עושה שלום pic.twitter.com/9MYFbufE9i
— Topaz Luk 🇮🇱 (@TopazLuk) November 23, 2020
Translation: Netanyahu was “making peace” while Benny Gantz was “doing politics.”
This also seems more credible than not, given the timing. Donald Trump had the Arab nations on a glide path toward normalization with Israel with the Abraham Accord, and isolation of Iran and the Palestinians in the region. The Saudis were always going to go last as a way to pressure the Palestinians into a real two-state solution, not just negotiate as a dodge while telling their subjects that they would deliver all of Israel into their hands. That’s a message the Saudis have been delivering publicly for a couple of months now, with increasing urgency.
Joe Biden’s victory makes the timeline for this strategy very limited now. The Saudis — and everyone else — expect Biden to be much more conciliatory to the Iranians and Palestinians, and Biden’s choice of Tony Blinken for Secretary of State will only confirm those suspicions. The Saudis may have to speed up the normalization curve, or at least threaten to do so without the Palestinians, in order to get what they want from Mahmoud Abbas. They have less than two months to push Abbas for a real agreement for a two-state solution on either Trump’s or Saudi Arabia’s terms so that they can complete the regional alignment against Tehran.
That regional alignment means more to the Saudis than the Palestinians. If Abbas doesn’t get off the dime soon, he might find himself with no friends at all. And if you want to see why the Saudis have decided to play hardball with the Palestinians, all one has to do is watch this remarkable interview given by Prince Bandar bin Sultan in August. It’s lengthy — about an hour altogether — but a remarkable rebuke of Palestinian leadership as liars and cheats, and it aired on Saudi state television:
The Palestinians can’t say they weren’t warned. And the Saudis can’t be accused of not having tried to settle this favorably for the Palestinians for decades, only to be undermined time and again by Yasser Arafat. If the Saudis are welcoming Netanyahu for a visit, it might be because he’s a more reliable partner.